I have been studying African cinema for about three years now, and have mostly focused on representations of neo/postcolonial Africa and Africans. Films like Ousmane Sembène’s, La Noire de…, Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and S. Pierre Yameogo’s Moi et mon blanc figure quite prevalently in my study of the aesthetics and politics of a decolonial African cinema dedicated towards the restitution of African society and the reconstruction of African civilization in the wake of the veritable identarian holocaust which was European colonization. This has often led African cinema to have a markedly anti-European valence, the likes of which can be attributed to the means by which Western Europe contributes to the active process of delimiting an endless African potentiality. Yet, given that African cinema, like African literature, is destined for wider circulation in markedly Euro-American markets, the politics of African cinema’s intellectual and political discourse are always subject to the encroaching Western gaze. African directors create in ways, as Samuel Lelièvre writes, which not only signify an essential(ized) African identity while at the same time perilously working to reinvent the very ideas of Africa and Africans (Lelièvre 51). From this lens, much of African cinema responding evidently to the issues plaguing burgeoning African nations creates the illusion of the perpetually failed state, the broken people and the hopelessly dark continent, insofar that the political project of African cinema is reinscribed by its very ontology as “other.” The question of perspective, audience and vantage recode and rewrite the African film in ways which directors cannot predict or avoid. From its very conception, African cinema has had to contend with not only the political implications of a decolonial medium oftentimes critical of the contemporary regimes in place –censure was a serious threat to the burgeoning African film industry – but they also continually were met with a kind of insurmountable alterity from the perspective of European filmgoers and cinephiles perhaps unfamiliar with Africa outside of what they had been hitherto told, and what few African films they had seen in international festivals.
At the end of this semester, I was given the assignment to read a recent book of film scholarship and write about its applicability in a course called “Foundations of Film and Media.” Some background information is warranted: I was “suggested” to take these class by the instructor, with whom I had met when visiting Yale, and with whom I had hoped to work on Francophone African cinema. The course read to me as the title suggested: the “foundations” of studying film as an object of study. Yet, I did not know that I was signing up for a class which would be so profoundly focused on theories of cinema, a theoretical canon I would learn to somewhat despise before the semester’s end. This is not at all to the discredit of Professor Andrew, who taught the class, or film theorists in general, so much as it was me becoming aware of what it is that film scholars do and what it was that I believed that they did. My work with film is markedly literary and thematic. I am more concerned with the content of film than I am with its shape and texture; I want to know what film says and how we make sense of what it says within larger epistemologies of meaning-making, society and stigma. As I discovered that the class was, in fact, not on these ideas, I became somewhat disenchanted. This “review” responds to the given assignment, focusing on Jared Sexton’s latest book, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Part of the prompt was the question whether the chosen book would figure appropriately on the syllabus for that class. I am sharing this review primarily because of the questions it poses not only about Sexton’s text, but also because of broader conceptual issues in film theory as an academic discipline at times ambivalent or perhaps even hostile to questions of race and representation. Yet, Sexton’s book, as I argue, is unaware of how to integrate film theory into a broader reading of cultural and social ideas in films, for form, it seems, does little to isolate these ideas for the cultural studies scholar. This only outlines the opposite of this fact, that social criticism and exegesis remain domains outside of the purview of the film theorist who deals with film as an allegedly “universal” language which, weirdly enough, contains no social significance.
The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.